Time to Party

For restaurateurs, venues and caterers the bottom line is on the line this holiday season.
courtesy of Fulton Alley
Twenty-five percent of the annual returns at Fulton Alley are made during the holiday season.

For many area restaurateurs and catering venue operators, the holiday season is the ultimate determinant of success for their business. “It is a huge driver for revenue, and it’s a total game-changer for us. It really makes our year,” says Octavio Mantilla, with the Besh Restaurant Group.

Depending on who you talk to, the percentage of importance fluctuates. While House of Blues reports the holiday season accounts for 10 percent of its annual returns, Fulton Alley reports it’s 25 percent, and Besh Restaurant Group says the festive period is responsible for anywhere between 20 percent to 40 percent of its business.

Mantilla, who is also the president of the Greater New Orleans chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), says that 35 percent of the $8.7 billion earned by Louisiana restaurants each year is made in New Orleans. Approximately $700 million of that revenue is made between Halloween and New Year’s. “That’s a pretty big number,” he says.

Mantilla, who owns some of the New Orleans area’s highly acclaimed restaurant pillars within the Besh Restaurant Group, is cautiously optimistic that New Orleans restaurants will experience a slight increase for 2016. “We expect for the holidays to do well or even better than last year, and I would say by at least 5 percent better.”

Gene Todaro, who owns restaurants in New Orleans and south Louisiana, agrees that number could be on target “if the recent pickup in business we received in November continues on its current course, then I can see that happening. Hopefully for all of us the increase will continue on that path.”

While most expect to meet their goals, some are candid about the challenges they’ve faced in 2016.

 “We do expect to hit our December revenue number, although this year is more difficult than some in the past due to the economy in NOLA,” says Anna Sumas with the House of Blues. “This last push for December holiday business can sometimes be responsible for us either making our budget or missing it. This was the case for the House of Blues New Orleans in 2015.”

Business owners say the economy, convention business and a presidential election each play a role in holiday returns, and coming off of a lackluster, summer their collective fingers are crossed for improved fourth-quarter earnings.

“We didn’t really have huge conventions like we had in previous years; we had some but not as many, and this has been a little soft spot,” says Bernard Stolberg, vice president of Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts (CCRC).

TOP LEFT: “Clients have scaled-back budgets, which has required us to be more flexible with minimums,” says Anna Sumas with the House of Blues. TOP RIGHT: Marcello’s Christmas
dinner BOTTOM:  Broussard’s filet mignon Wellington is one of the options for the restaurant’s reveillon feast.  Photos courtesy of House of Blues, Marcello’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, and Broussard’s Restaurant

Demand for restaurant and holiday soirees is also driven by corporate and company earnings, plus the incomes of individual consumers; all affect just how much dining out will be done during the holidays. “Clients have scaled-back budgets, which has required us to be more flexible with minimums,” Sumas continues. “We are hoping that this flexibility pays off as they return to us for future years to come.”  

But all business owners know it’s not just what you sell, it’s also where you sell it. For example, location plays a role in overall holiday earnings for Creole Cuisine restaurants popular with locals. “Boulevard American Bistro in Metairie does better during the holidays because people are out on the street shopping and in the spirit,” says Stolberg.

Many are counting on a historical New Orleans holiday tradition to be the saving grace for fourth-quarter earnings.

New Orleans’ reveillon (‘awakening’) offerings have played a critical role in revenue returns — the Creole holiday feasts have gradually grown in popularity over the past 20 years, and heatedly so over the past five. More than 50 restaurants from the French Quarter, Mid-City, and Bywater districts are offering this unmatched culinary fare designed to appeal to locals, and tourists have come along for the culinary ride. “I think people want to celebrate life in New Orleans, especially after what happened with Katrina,” says Mantilla.

Reveillon is such an enormous revenue-maker that some businesses partaking in the deeply rooted tradition say it accounts for half their holiday takings. “Everybody looks forward to reveillon, and the tourism folks have helped motivate it,” explains Stolberg.

Meanwhile, because of increased convention bookings for 2017, business owners are seemingly more confident about what’s around the corner in terms of revenue possibilities.

While they hope to close out the quarter exceeding their holiday goals, Todaro shrugs his shoulders and admittedly says, “You just never know.  It’s so fickle and hard to really pinpoint how it’s going to flesh out.”

Soiree Trends

Staying ahead of the curve and preserving New Orleans’ unmatched culinary tradition is the name of the game when it comes to satisfying patrons thirsty for something more than the average soiree. In fact, there has been a trend with millennials turning to venues to celebrate with loved ones, which in turn has led to extended holiday hours for both restaurants and catering venues. “We opened on Thanksgiving Day for the first time last year due to overwhelming number of requests to be open. We will open again this year, and for years to come,” says Lisa Larsen of Galatoire’s.

Mantilla agrees: “The biggest thing I see trending now is people want more of a family-meal type setting, and more family-style menus with dishes they can share.”

There is also a shift in the variety and size of soirees hosted this year. “They’re not doing huge corporate Christmas parties, they’re doing more intimate gatherings,” adds Stolberg.

Guests are also demanding more of an experience at holiday gatherings. “The trend is offering interactive food stations where guests can mingle with the chef as he prepares their dish in front of them and guests can make your own culinary creation,” says Leanne Mistretta with Fulton Alley and Brechtel Hospitality. Brechtel Hospitality group takes the experience aspect a step further by utilizing its Fulton Alley entertainment venue, which includes distinctive spaces and a bowling alley and game parlor.  

Larsen says Galatoire’s holiday patrons are seeking private dining rooms with private balconies overlooking Bourbon Street; a few blocks away at the House of Blues, soirees include “lots of color and personality, and a variety of talent choices based on budget and genre,” says Sumas.

Igniting Palates

Topping off these trends are food-conscious consumers wanting to ignite their palates. “Millennials are very much experimental customers who want to experience unique dishes with local, quality ingredients, and they want to know the stories behind the food,” adds Mantilla.

Among clients’ favorites this year at Fulton Alley are trendier hand-passed hors d’oeuvres like lobster mac-and-cheese fritters, chicken-and-waffle bites, and bread pudding beignet balls. House of Blues focuses on sourcing local ingredients and customizing menus to accommodate the various dietary needs. “Everyone wants a Southern holiday-inspired menu that features a lot of traditional items but are often restricted by their guests’ dietary restrictions,” adds Sumas.

LEFT: Galatoire’s Turtle Soup au Sherry RIGHT: Craft cocktails are a favorite during the holidays. Shown here is the bar at Fulton Alley.  Photos courtesy of Galatoire’s and Fulton Alley

While some stick to the authentic recipes of reveillon, more and more restaurateurs are serving reveillon-inspired dishes with a twist. “Galatoire’s menu has remained consistent over the years, but reveillon allows our chef a chance to bring in new flavors and dishes and showcase his talents,” says Larsen.

Like Galatoire’s, serving several courses and more traditional reveillon meals reign at Broussard’s Restaurant, where third-course options include filet mignon Wellington and seared drum. Stolberg says holiday dishes at CCRC’s restaurants reflect the personality of each eatery and are both innovative and classic.  

Cultural recipes are pleasing holiday palates at Marcello’s Restaurant and Wine Bar.  Here holiday dishes are the meals tempting taste buds in Sicily during Christmas and New Year’s. “We are not serving ‘New Orleans Italian’ food, which has the Creole influence,” adds Todaro. Cioppino (a fish stew) and an array of veal and pasta dishes are among perennial holiday favorites.

Seasonal Sippers

Craft cocktails incorporating tasty seasonal ingredients like pumpkin and clove are quenching patrons’ thirst.

At Marcello’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, a sparkling Italian wine called prosecco flows heavily during Christmas and New Year’s; meanwhile, Galatoire’s offers the popular after-dinner libation named café Brulot, a flaming cup of citrus- and brandy-spiked coffee. The trend at larger holiday catered events is to pare down the cocktail possibilities, with a two-drink ticket limit per guest.